Jacking In, and Off, to the New Digital Canon

First, The Good News. Anybody lucky enough to be working all hours creating the next killer ap and thinking big things about how technology is transforming our lives is clearly much too busy to read. Those people will therefore be relieved to know that the entire HardWired canon can be mentally downloaded in about 10 hours. And it's largely a pleasant 10.Since Wired Ventures, home of that hip magazine of the digital age Wired (for which I have written short pieces for and some of whose employees I know--it's a small town), launched its book division in mid-1996, HardWired has produced five works: Mind Grenades (20 minutes, tops), Wired Style (a quick two hours), Digerati (four hours, maybe more if you're feeling industrious), Reality Check (two hours cover-to-cover, though more fun to pick up and browse at random) and a "digitally remastered" edition of Marshall McLuhan's The Medium Is the Massage (under two hours, but it keeps popping back).For the unwashed and underwired masses not living the high-tech life, there's really no reason to be afraid of the super-hip titles and Technicolor covers.Still, judging from the way Wired magazine and all its progeny are regularly trashed in the media, many will wish blood, frogs and boils upon this young book company. The grating Mind Grenades: Manifestos From the Future - -a collection of the graphic "Intro Quotes" that start each issue of the magazine -- will do little to discourage such behavior.Founder Louis Rossetto explains in his introduction that these Big Thoughts are meant to "prepare readers for the visual and intellectual assault to come." But devoid of their context and shoveled into book form, Emperor Rossetto's Mind Grenades have no clothes.Take, for example, this floating thought: "Immersive technology represent, on the one hand, the grail at the end of the history of cinema, and on the other hand, the beacon that draws creative energies toward the culmination of computing. ... In the world of immersion, authorship is no longer the transmission of experience, but rather the construction of utterly personal experiences."Come again? This is a book of design, not ideas, and certainly not brain explosions. Ultimately, these dizzy displays of aesthetics wrapped around minor-league McLuhanisms are more miss than hit. (This would be the bad news.)At The Other End of the spectrum is Reality Check: You've Heard the Hype.Wired Asked the Experts. Here's the Real Future. It is the best of the canon, I think, because it best succeeds at delivering its delicious material without taking itself so seriously. A collection of columns of the same name that first appeared in Wired magazine, Reality Check examines an incredibly vast and varied set of suppositions about the future without actually assaulting the reader with information and visual overload (and why should anyone have to get hurt anyway?).The topics, tackled by experts offering their sound-bite authority on big and small ideas that have been distilled into a meaningful context by editors Brad Wieners and David Pescovitz, make for a party in any future-gazer's head.In a few paragraphs, the editors provide an overview of a subject, sum up the various opinions and cut to the chase, shamelessly predicting a year in which these still primordial pipe dreams will become a reality.From the state of effective hair-loss prevention (prediction: 2006), the year when virtual sex slaves will fulfill our every nasty wish (2055), to the "Sober Up" drug (2020) that reverses the effects of alcohol with a single swallow, Reality Check is tasty brain candy for the Blade Runner and Sleeper set alike.Reality Check looks great on the coffee table, and its breezy info-nuggets make for perfect reading on the can (I mean this as a compliment of the highest order). But where to put Wired Style?Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age suffers from a touch of schizophrenia. Useful as a one-time read, it probably won't be kept next to the computer to provide a quick reference when it's time to determine if you should hyphenate an URL when it breaks at the end of a line (you shouldn't), but it deserves a better fate than to be left for dead on the bookshelf.Part talky Strunk and White Elements of Style, part nuts-and-bolts writer's manual for the digital age (and the spiral binding is a nice utilitarian touch), it's a handy intro to thinking about writing about digital/tech culture (even if summing up such style in book form seems to go against the go-get-'em-and-Get Wired! grain). Ultimately, its place in the quickly crowding field of cyber-style guides is probably closest to a geek's version of Karen Gordon's The Transitive Vampire, the quintessential grammar guide with attitude.Wired Style's got attitude all right. Each chapter-ette, covering mandates such as "Capture the Colloquial," "Screw the Rules" and "Grok the Media," offers an impassioned explanation as to why these mandates will infuse the prose of any self-respecting promo scribe, usually with examples taken from the pages of Wired.The indexes that accompany each section provide the uninitiated with pithy histories of the players and companies, and definitions of common phrases and acronyms, as well as delivering a nice lesson in Digital Mediascape 101.My main beef with Wired Style is that it feels so, well, "Wired." Statements such as "provocative writing demands out-of-the-box thinking" should not be allowed out of the office. Wired's writers and editors may or may not truly believe that they have cornered the market on unconventional writing (ever hear of the alternative press?), but they professes their self-love as if they were the only game in town: "At Wired, we celebrate writing that jacks us into the soul of a new society." Were it not for the pomposity that pervades the book like overpriced drinks in a supper club, Wired Style would be so much easier to love.For his part, author John Brockman goes out of his way to state that he is not associated with Wired The Magazine, and indeed Digerati: Encounters With the Cyber Elite is not nearly as offensive as it sounds. Brockman profiles the 25 folks he deems to be the thinkers and doers of our digital day.By checking in with cyber-celebs like Howard Rheingold (dubbed "The Citizen"), Steve Chase ("The Statesman") and Esther Dyson ("The Pattern-Recognizer"), the author relays some fascinating miniÐoral histories about how we got to where we are and where we are going. Brockman's fawning, however, does grow tiresome quickly, and the mutual admiration society he perpetuates by having the digerati comment on each other is pretty tough to stomach.Here, the gems are in the anecdotes, from how Dave Winer accidentally started his must-read emailed newsletter DaveNet to what makes digital coyote John Perry Barlow run.Although an accompanying Web site opens up the discussion beyond these highly selective few, it's still unsettling to think that many readers won't have the time or inclination to wonder who the other 25 most important thinkers of our digital day might be (I suggest an "also recommended" list). Then again, as A.N. Whitehead states on the very last page of Marshall McLuhan's famous The Medium Is the Massage, "It is the business of the future to be dangerous."Ah, Marshall, whose centimeter-square visage graces each issue of Wired as the magazine's patron saint. HardWired the publisher gives its parent company a nice pat on the back, writing in the promo material that the magazine has "generated a worldwide McLuhan revival."Heady statement, and as is often the case with Wired's conception of itself as the life-giving sun of the Digital Universe, it's unsurprisingly arrogant, though not altogether untrue. McLuhan, the media critic and author whose most famous book is a pun on his famous phrase, "the medium is the message," made observations before his death in 1980 that were indeed the mind grenades of his day (you'd swear he had Web access in 1967). In The Medium Is the Massage, it's clear that McLuhan understood what the digital age held for society and wrote in simple prose, strikingly free of attitude and years ahead of his day.So without exactly conceding the McLuhan revival, let's simply thank them for reissuing McLuhan's fabulously prophetic and endlessly entertaining masterpiece -- and hope it sells like wild. And it probably will: 30 years after it was first published, the marketing is the message as well.Mind Grenades: Manifestos from the Future Design and editorial direction by John Plunkett and Louis Rossetto 160 pages; $32.95Reality Check: You've Heard the Hype. Wired Asked the Experts. Here's the Real Future Edited by Brad Wieners and David Pescovitz 176 pages; $16.95Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age Edited by Constance Hale 176 pages; $17.95Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite By John Brockman 272 pages; $24.95The Medium Is the Massage By Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore 160 pages; $9.95

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